How to be Fabulous Grandparents to a Child with Special Needs
As a mother with two children on the autism spectrum, I’ve heard some whopper stories about how grandparents just “don’t get it” and some wonderful stories of those that do. If you have a grandchild or grandchildren that have special needs (be it developmental, physical, emotional or behavioral disabilities), I have some suggestions on how you can be fabulous grandparents.
Getting an understanding of what disability your grandchild has
You don’t have to be an expert, but, do take the time to get some basic facts about the challenges and struggles your grandchild may be experiencing. “I’m in awe of my parents,” claims Leila, whose child has a rare form of epilepsy. When their grandchild, Clare, was first diagnosed, they combed the internet and libraries for information about the disorder. “My parents understand what needs to be done in case Clare has a seizure.” It has given Leila and her husband a lot of comfort to know that her parents can handle Clare in an emergency when they visit them.
To be a great grandparent, you need to be a great parent too
Your grandchild will be struggling with their disability, but your child could be struggling too. “I haven’t had dinner out with my wife in over nine months,” stated Bill. “We are too exhausted to do it and when we do, we spend our entire time talking about our child.” Parents of special needs kids have an extremely high divorce rate (for parents with a child with autism, it is around 80%) due to the stress and strains of having a special needs child. Your child may need a friendly ear or a shoulder to cry upon. Encourage your child and their spouse take time for themselves as a couple. If you are able to baby sit for them, so much the better.
Maintain frequent contact
With grandchildren that do not live locally, this can be tough. However, frequent phone calls and letters are a great way to connect with your grandchild. One friend installed a computer videophone in her and her parent’s computer. Each day, her children have a brief video phone call with her parents. “I love talking to my Nana each day on the computer!” exclaims Joe, who has Asperger’s, a form of autism. For very young children, create a photo book of you so they can always have you close.
Love your grandchild as they are, warts and all
This may seem obvious, but it is the most common complaint I hear from special needs parents about their own parents. Well meaning grandparents often assume the role of telling the parents that they “should be” doing this or that to “correct” their child. A special needs child is bombarded by therapists, teachers and parents working to change something about them. Grandparents are lucky to be the ones who can embrace their child as they are – take advantage of it! Your grandchild will truly bask in your unconditional love.
Carol loves to tell stories about her late father’s role in her daughter Annie’s life. Annie has Down Syndrome. The best one is Carol’s story about how Annie remembers him: I asked Annie what she remembered about Grandpa. She remembers mini golf, bowling, board games, dancing, baking chocolate chip cookies, learning to count money (gambling!) and learning how to read. Another story she remembered was his big kisses and big waves. She remembered how he was even better than Santa at Christmas time. He was her cheerleader. He was my cheerleader.
Carol was extremely fortunate to have such a wonderful father and Annie such a wonderful grandpa. As parents of special needs children, it is often our role to educate those around us about our child’s disability. Unfortunately, grandparents are sometimes included in those we need to educate. However, most grandparents do want to help and support their children and grandchildren, they just don’t know how. Consider using this article as a step in giving grandparents a chance to be a positive force in your child’s life.
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